Like most American coins, the origin of the Morgan Dollar can be traced back to an act of Congress. On February 28, 1878 the Bland-Allison Act was passed. Bland was a representative from Missouri, Allison a representative from Iowa. Both had interests in the silver industry, which certainly played a factor in them putting this bill into action. President Rutherford B. Hayes actually vetoed the bill and sent it back to Congress, but Congress passed it anyway and it went into law.
Early on, the Morgan Dollar wasn’t very well received. From a practical standpoint people thought it was too big and heavy. From an aesthetic standpoint people didn’t originally embrace the design. In fact, for years it was known as the Bland Dollar, not just because of the Bland-Allison Act, but because people didn’t care much for the design. Many publications said the eagle on the reverse looked too small and downright sickly. These early criticisms are especially ironic considering that nowadays the Morgan Dollar is the second most widely collected American coin in existence, behind only the Lincoln penny.
The Bland-Allison Act dictated that the U.S. Treasury Department buy two to four million dollars worth of silver each month and convert it to the new dollars. Obviously the passage of this bill helped silver miners out West tremendously, because the government was now legally obligated to purchase a large percentage of the silver being mined at the time.The Morgan Dollar was to be 412.5 grains, 90% silver and 10% copper. At the time it had about $0.89 worth of silver in it.
In 1877 the Philadelphia Mint, sensing that an act of Congress was imminent, started working feverishly on the new dollar. Chief Engraver William Barber and Assistant Engraver George T. Morgan created and tested about two-dozen different designs for the coin.On February 21, 1878 Mint Director Henry Linderman selected the design. It was, of course, the design of George T. Morgan, hence the name, the Morgan Dollar.
The Morgan Dollar’s obverse, of Lady Liberty, was modeled after Anna W. Williams, who Morgan met through a fellow artist by the name of Thomas Eakins. Morgan had 5 sittings with Anna Williams, who insisted that this be done in secret because she was a schoolteacher and was afraid she might be fired for modeling for the artist. If this sounds like a paranoid notion to you, you’ll be surprised to learn that later an enterprising young reporter found out about it, reported it and Anna Williams was in fact fired.
As mentioned earlier the now famous reverse of the coin initially got mixed reviews, with most of the negativity focused on the eagle.This wasn’t at all uncommon though;publications in the 1800s were critical of nearly every new coin that was minted.
During the first year of production, dies were sent to the three operational mints at the time. The Carson City Mint, in Nevada, The Philadelphia Mint of course, and the San Francisco Mint.Later,in 1879,the Morgan Dollar was produced at the New Orleans Mint as well.
The 1878 Morgan Dollar reverse has a very interesting tale…pardon the pun. Originally the design of the eagle had 8 tail feathers. Within the first two weeks of production, Mint Director Henry Linderman insisted it be changed from 8 to 7 tail feathers because in nature most birds had an odd number of tail feathers. Ultimately this led to, not 2, but 3 different varieties.
The first is obviously the 8 tail feather variety, which was the original intent of George T. Morgan. There are an estimated 750,000 8 tailfeather Morgan Dollars in existence, all minted in Philadelphia.There are also an estimated 8.7 million 1978 7 tail feather Morgan Dollars in existence, again from the Philadelphia Mint. The third variety, which is the rarest, is called the 7 over 8 tail feather variety. This is a result of the mint attempting to over-stamp the 8 tail feather coins that had been minted but not yet released. What resulted was a coin featuring an eagle with 7 tail feathers but the remnants of the original strike was still visible, of course having 8 tail feathers. There were an estimated 500,000 minted, all at the Philadelphia Mint.
The Morgan Dollar had a great run. It was minted from 1878-1921, with a large gap from 1904-1920 when they stopped making them simply because they had a lot and didn’t really need more. They didn’t start minting them again until 1921 and only for a short time because the Morgan Dollar was replaced by the Peace Dollar a short time after they started production again in 1921.
The long run, the now classic design, the various minting locations and some interesting varieties have all made Morgan Dollars one of the most popularly collected coins in the world.